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May 20, 2005

Tough Guys Tell the Truth

Chris Charuhas

David Hackworth died last week. Often described as "America's most decorated soldier," he was wounded eight times in combat. He always took pains to distinguish "showing up" medals from "doing something dangerous" medals, such as the Combat Infantry Badge. Mr. Hackworth thought a medal should mean something because he cared deeply about telling the truth.

An orphan who joined the Army at age 15 (lying about his age to enlist was probably the last lie he ever told) Mr. Hackworth was trained in the late ' 40s by tough-as-nails World War II veterans. He volunteered for the Korean War and saw much combat, cutting the throats of enemy pickets, and saving his fellow soldiers' lives in firefights.

In his book About Face, Mr. Hackworth also describes being so miserable during Korean winter nights that he considered shooting himself in the foot to escape his excruciatingly cold infantry duty. He wasn't afraid to tell the truth, even when it conflicted with his own legend.

Indeed, telling the truth is what made the Army - his beloved adopted family - drive him away. During the Vietnam War, he was our most successful battalion commander, turning a dispirited bunch of draftees into an elite force of jungle fighters that annihilated enemy units while taking miniscule casualties.

But his village-level view of the war showed him that it was a bad war, one we couldn't win. When he told his Army superiors what he saw, they ignored him, so he went on a TV show to tell the truth to all Americans. He said we should get out of Vietnam. Our government, which had promoted that war with a mountain of lies, said he should get out of the Army.

So he did. Mr. Hackworth bitterly left our country and went to live in Australia for over a decade. Fortunately for us, he came back to the United States in the '90s and began telling the truth again, first as a newspaper and magazine journalist, then as a writer for Soldiers for the Truth, a Web site that served as "the voice of the grunt."

Mr. Hackworth became beloved among common soldiers because he used his powerful pen to tell the truth about self-serving officers, whom he called "perfumed princes." He also helped expose POW abuse at Abu Ghraib, crimes for which high-ranking officers bear responsibility.

Mr. Hackworth was one of the toughest soldiers our country ever produced, not that he would have told you that himself. Like most true tough guys, he was soft-spoken and modest. Yet he was never shy about "taking the point" - putting himself out front - to tell us uncomfortable truths.

At the beginning of the Iraq War, he appeared on every TV show that would have him to warn that we'd invaded Iraq with too few troops to secure it. He knew the truth about guerilla warfare: that it was Saddam's only option, and that it takes lots of soldiers with small-bore weapons to suppress and/or win.

Mr. Hackworth was never one to mince words. The plain-speaking, earthy legacy of the hard-drinking troops who trained him stayed with him throughout his life. When asked by an interviewer if he'd set up a whorehouse for his troops in Vietnam, he freely admitted it. He also cursed Cabinet officials whom he thought were wasting the lives of our troops in Iraq.

When the Secretary of Defense elected to "go in light and on the cheap," (in Mr. Hackworth's words) Mr. Hackworth called him - in true profane infantryman style - an "arrogant a**hole."

All Americans should honor David Hackworth's bravery, service, and willingness to speak truth to the "Powers that Be." Perhaps the best way to do that would be to listen to the "grunts" that Mr. Hackworth loved. When common soldiers talk about their experiences in Iraq, listen closely - especially when their words contradict what our government is saying.

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